I am hesitant to post this because I haven't done the usual multiple passes of editing and rewriting and proofreading, and of course it has not been betaed. But I cannot see this making it into AQATSA, it's just a little excerpt that wouldn't leave me alone until I wrote it all down, and if I spent the time I usually do on polishing it, that's time not writing the main story or my other stuff. So, consider this very rough and pseudo-canon. (If I realize I wrote something here that later contradicts something else, I reserve the right to declare it apocryphal. ;))
I may occasionally post other little excerpts if I get more ideas for scenes that don't really belong in book four.
Six old women walked through the woods, wearing long dresses and laced bonnets that somehow failed to attract any brambles, burrs, or thorns. Though they made their way slowly, old bones and old joints forcing them to pick their steps with care, the women were unimpeded by the fortress walls of virgin trees and thick tangles of undergrowth. Hunters roamed the surrounding mountains from spring until fall, but even the most determined of them almost never reached this deep into the Ozarks.
In the middle of the primeval forest, the trees abruptly thinned and there sat before the old women an ancient, ramshackle cabin in a muddy, weed-choked clearing.
“Hain't much,” said one of the women, squinting. She was the only one of them who wore a pointed black witch's hat instead of a bonnet.
“Don't be a nuggin, Abigail,” said the oldest witch. She was stooped over, bent almost horizontally to the ground, leaning on a cane that was as gnarled and knotty as her fingers, but she had led the group here, and of the six of them, she looked the least winded. “Look at it like a witch, not a Muggle.” She hawked and spat something brown and sticky into the foliage, inches from Abigail.
“Oh,” Abigail said, after a moment. “Well, bless me, but what in heaven's name do they need a Muggle-sorceling charm for? Allus way out to the furthest holler, hain't no Muggles hereabouts.”
“My grandson's worried 'bout furriners,” said one of the other witches. “Don't make a lick a' sense, but there you go.”
Something moved through the trees between the witches and the decrepit shack, and Abigail jumped. “Merlin and Medb!” she exclaimed.
“Lawd, lawd, Abigail, hain't you never seen a Thestral afore?” The eldest witch made a disparaging sound, deep in her throat, and shook her head.
“'Course I have,” Abigail said. She eyed the creature as it stood still and watched the six witches, unafraid. “Oughter be more've 'em.”
“We'uns didn't come here to fret 'bout Thestrals. Dorcas, fetch your great-granddaughters.” The eldest witch hawked and spat again. Abigail tried not to flinch. “And take Abigail with you.”
“Yes, Bountiful.” One of the other witches, whose bonnet had a flower pattern on it and whose dress was bright yellow and white, setting her apart from her dark and austerely-dressed companions, walked forward. Abigail followed her. The Thestral casually moved away from them as they headed for the shack.
“A lone Thestral's a bad omen,” Abigail muttered.
“You oughtn't repeat such superstitious nonsense,” Dorcas said.
Abigail's face scrunched up at Dorcas's chiding. She was the youngest of the Grannies – barely sixty – so they all tended to treat her like a child. It rankled, but she held her tongue.
As they walked towards the dilapidated old shack, they heard children's voices raised in song, the sound of chickens and pigs and goats, and then they were close enough that they didn't need to use their witch-sight to see the true shape of the property.
The house was actually quite large, and not at all dilapidated, though it was old and patched together and seemed to sprawl across the uneven terrain of the clearing. Attached to it were pig pens and goat pens and a yard full of chickens, none of them fenced, though the animals never crossed the unseen boundaries of their respective areas, not even the winged goats.
A little girl in a blue bonnet and blue-gray dress was chasing an even smaller boy. He was attempting to cover his ears with his hands as he ran from the girl, who chanted:
“See a Thestral 'fore you're seven
you won't never get to heaven!
See a Thestral 'fore thirteen,
you'll go a maid to Fiddler's Green!
See a Thestral 'fore one and twenty,
you'll see death an' trouble plenty!”
“Coooonnnnie!” screamed the boy. “Forbeaaaarance! Innnnnocence!”
He ran right into his older sister, who had come around the house to investigate his screaming. He bounced off of her, took two steps backward, and fell to the ground with a thump as his bottom landed in the dirt. He removed his hands from the side of his head and looked up tearfully.
“Innocence!” he wailed. “Ah don't wanna see a Thestral!”
Innocence rolled her bright blue eyes and shook her head. “You can't see Thestrals.” She stooped to lift her younger brother to his feet, and looked over his shoulder at the little girl, who had stopped in her tracks and was now scuffing the toe of her shoe in the dirt, looking around as if she had no idea how she'd come to be standing there. “Whimsy, stop singin' that awful song!”
Behind her, her two older sisters had also emerged. Forbearance looked worried; Constance looked cross.
“Is it true I'll die an' be a maid if I see one?” the little boy whispered.
“No!” Innocence snapped. Her tone was so sharp, even Whimsy flinched.
Constance and Forbearance looked at one another. Before they could say anything, Whimsy exclaimed, “Great-Granny!”
Everyone turned to see where the youngest girl was looking. Dorcas and Abigail were strolling casually into the yard in front of the Pritchards' homestead, and Dorcas's weathered face broke into a smile. “Hello, my darlings.” Whimsy ran over to her and embraced her, and Dorcas patted the girl's shoulder and then put an arm around her as she continued walking towards the other four children. The boy put his fingers in his mouth and clutched Innocence's hand with his other hand as he looked at the two old women shyly.
“Hello, Great-Grandma Pritchard,” Constance and Forbearance said together, in a very respectful tone. A moment ago, while their faces and dresses were identical, their postures and expressions had been quite different indeed. Now, suddenly they were twins again, in posture and tone of voice and even in the way they both bobbed their heads and lowered their eyes in exactly the same way.
“It's been an age, hain't it?” said Dorcas. “Or a year, at least.” She winked at the twins, and then turned her attention to Innocence. She put a hand on the boy's head, but it was Innocence whose face she was studying. “And how are you, great-grandchile?”
Innocence smiled at her. “I'm fine as can be, Great-Granny.”
“Hain't what I heard, chile. Now don't you parseltongue me.”
The girl dropped her eyes. “I'm okay, Great-Granny,” she said, more softly.
“Okay? What sorter word is that? Is that how they teach you to talk at Charmbridge Academy?” The old woman shook her head and clucked her tongue. “Well, we'll talk a spell later, be you sure of that.” She patted Innocence's cheek. “But I come to see my other fine, fancy schoolgirls today.” She looked at the twins, whose faces both brightened with excitement. They had noticed the other old woman who was standing quietly a few yards away, looking over the children and the yard and the house with appraising eyes.
“Are the other Grannies here?” asked Constance.
“Have you come to take us into the woods?” asked Forbearance, in a hushed tone.
“They are, and I have.” Dorcas's tone was solemn now. “If your folks are amenable, that is. Hello, Grandson.”
Constance and Forbearance spun about, Innocence stood up straight, and the little boy and girl did, too, as they realized that their father had appeared silently on the porch. He wore stiff britches and a long-sleeved shirt despite the sweltering heat. His eyes were set in a weathered face that was trickling sweat beneath his wide-brimmed hat. His black-bearded jaw was working as if he were chewing on something, and his expression as he regarded his children and the two old women was hard to read.
“Grandma,” he said. “Care to come in and sit a spell, you and Granny Morrison?”
“Thankee, Grandson, but we've got a fair piece to go yet today, and we'uns would be pleased if'n Constance and Forbearance could come 'long a spell.”
The patriarch of the Pritchard family frowned. “You mean for that old woman foolishness.” His face and his tone were darker now. “Someone's gotter watch the little'uns, an' they got chores and then studyin' if'n they wants to go back to that fancy school that's costin' us every last pidge for their educatin'.”
Constance and Forbearance lowered their heads. Their eyes were on the ground, along with Innocence's, but Dorcas straightened her back and faced her grandson unflinchingly. “Dust Isaac Pritchard, don't you try to show your granny how big a circle you can piss.” Mr. Pritchard and his daughters all turned bright red. Dorcas Pritchard put her hands on her hips and continued to berate him. “There's educatin' your girls won't get at no school and you know better'n to call the craftin' that gave you your wand 'old woman foolishness'! Now are you fixin' to make the Grannies wait, or perhaps you'd prefer me to tell Granny Ford that you've got a piece of your mind to share with her?”
Mr. Pritchard clamped his jaw shut. His eyes smoldered, and Constance and Forbearance, still with their heads bowed, glanced at one another fearfully.
“I can watch Whimsy an' Done, Pa,” Innocence said. “Whimsy can help me with some of Connie an' Forbearance's chores.” She shot a look at Whimsy, who was opening her mouth to protest, and Whimsy closed her mouth, though her face swelled up as if she might explode.
“We'll do all our chores that's left when we get back, Pa, every last one,” Constance said, speaking quickly into the sudden silence.
“And we'll study 'til sunup if we has to,” Forbearance said.
Dust Pritchard looked at his daughters, and then at his grandmother, and let out an exasperated sigh. “Better do. Don't think I won't forbid you'uns to go fritterin' off to the woods if'n it means pigs don't get slopped and goats don't get milked, and you can tell Granny Ford I done said it!” He addressed this last to Granny Pritchard, who merely raised her eyebrows.
“Thank you, Pa!” Constance and Forbearance said together, unable to keep from beaming.
He grunted. Just before he turned away from them and went inside, his expression softened.
Constance and Forbearance almost tumbled down the steps towards Innocence. They both hugged her and kissed her on the cheek.
“Thank you, Innocence,” Constance said.
“Thank you,” Forbearance said, and then she tsked as she looked her younger sister over and reached up to straighten her bonnet. Innocence was dressed like a proper Ozarker girl once more – not the way she had been dressing those last few months at Charmbridge – but she always managed to leave her bonnet just a little bit askew, always with a bit of curly blonde hair untucked and hanging visible beneath it.
“Why can't we come 'long?” asked Whimsy.
“Me, too!” said Done, who clearly had no idea where they were going, but wanted to come anyway.
“We'uns hain't goin' to pick posies,” said Granny Pritchard. “Now stop that mopin'.” She produced her wand and wiggled it, and the air was filled with luminescent bubbles, gold and silver and blue, swirling around Whimsy and Done's heads. The little boy stumbled around in a circle laughing and trying to catch them, but they floated just out of his reach, like living things. Whimsy more cleverly whipped her bonnet off of her head and swiped it through the air, trapping two in one pass. When they burst, with tinkling, chiming sounds, there were two pieces of candy lying inside her bonnet.
“You share with your brother, now,” Granny Pritchard said, while Done continued chasing the slow-moving but teasing bubbles.
“I wish I could go with you'uns,” Innocence said, more quietly.
“You'd be terrible bored,” Forbearance said. “The Grannies mostly don't talk and we'uns can't let out a peep neither. Hain't no great works we's gonna see, it's all watchin' and tryin' to understand.”
“But it's Mysteries,” Innocence whispered. Her voice was tinged with jealousy. “You'uns got chose to see Mysteries.”
“Innocence Catherine,” her great-grandmother said, stepping closer and lowering her voice. “There be all manner of Mysteries in the world, and you don't need a gaggle of old women to show you them.” Her spritely manner was gone now, replaced with a grave tone and expression, as she looked into Innocence's eyes, that seemed to find a Mystery there where she was looking. “Those whose eyes is open will see,” she murmured. “But it's not all wonders. Constance and Forbearance has the knack, but they may not have the will.” Constance and Forbearance looked down uncomfortably. “And you, chile, you done seen more'n you ought already. Also, you hain't got enough patience.”
Innocence pouted at that last, but she didn't argue, and with a somber expression she watched Granny Pritchard, Granny Morrison, and Constance and Forbearance walk away, gliding across the yard and into the woods.
She sat down on the steps in front of the Pritchard homestead, and rested her chin in one hand, while she kept half an eye on her younger brother and sister, still chasing musical bubbles that burst into sweets, and half an eye on the woods where the grannies and her older sisters had gone.
“Innocence, Whimsy's snatchin' up all'a them!” Done wailed.
Innocence rolled her eyes. She took her wand out of a pocket in her dress, and pointed it at a little cluster of bubbles. She squinted, closing one eye while aiming her wand carefully, and said, “Brag!” A bubble over Done's head burst and dropped a piece of candy on him. She grinned as Done caught the candy with a giggle and popped it into his mouth.
Her expression changed abruptly. She squinted again, this time at the woods on the far side of the yard.
Whimsy noticed her sister's expression, turned her head to look over her shoulder where Innocence was staring, and then turned to look back at Innocence.
“What you see, Innocence?” she asked.
Innocence frowned, confused, and looked back at Whimsy and Done. “Weren't nothin'. Now snatch them bubbles 'fore they's gone. Hurry up now, we'uns got chores.”
“Ah don't know why you can't do all of 'em – you gots a wand!” Whimsy was unable to hide her envy. Innocence wiggled her wand in front of her sister's face. Whimsy snatched at it, and Innocence laughed, holding it just out of her reach.
“You see if you can just magic all your chores away when you gets a wand,” she said.
In the woods, the undergrowth shook again, a few low-hanging branches were pushed aside as if by a ghost, and if one were to look very closely with eyes that could see, one might have seen a black tail disappearing into the trees.